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American Surgeons Have Drinking Problems

February 21, 2012

It’s true that a majority of surgeons have drinking problems, and it’s true that they don’t get punished.  Read on from PopTart’s commentary:

An online, anonymous poll published in the February issue of Archives of Surgery“indicated that 15 percent of surgeons appear to suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence: nearly 14 percent of male surgeons and 26 percent of female surgeons.  Those figures exceed the 8 percent to 12 percent figure typically cited for alcohol abuse rates among the public at large.”

Oh don’t worry, says the survey’s lead author Dr. Michael Oreskovich, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. “The chance of a patient being injured by an impaired surgeon is really very uncommon. Something like one in 10,000,” he says.  But if you read the study, or at least the abstract to which the public has access, there is no such “poo-pooing” this clearly serious problem:

Surgeons reporting a major medical error in the previous 3 months were more likely to have alcohol abuse or dependence (odds ratio, 1.45; P < .001). Surgeons who were burned out (odds ratio, 1.25; P = .01) and depressed (odds ratio, 1.48; P < .001) were more likely to have alcohol abuse or dependence. …

Conclusions  Alcohol abuse and dependence is a significant problem in US surgeons. Organizational approaches for the early identification of problematic alcohol consumption followed by intervention and treatment where indicated should be strongly supported.

Meanwhile, what are state medical licensing boards doing about this?  Not much.  See, for example, Public Citizen’s letter to California Governor Jerry Brown last August:

California’s state medical board has failed to take disciplinary action against 710 physicians in the state, all of whom were disciplined for wrongdoing between September 1990 and the end of 2009 by California hospitals, health maintenance organizations, ambulatory surgical centers and other health care organizations. What’s more, 102 of those doctors were designated by peer reviewers as an “immediate threat to health or safety” of patients.

Some of the other violations include delivering substandard care, wrongly diagnosing surgical patients, improperly leaving surgical equipment in a patient, alcohol or other substance abuse, and physical illness or impairment.

On the other hand, one thing California has made sure to do, is provide a special “get out of jail free” card to drunk surgeons by strictly limiting their liability – assuming an injured patient can even get into court.  Which reminds us of one of our favorite videos, below.  The context is H.R. 5 – the federal medical negligence, nursing home and drug company immunity bill, which fortunately isn’t going anywhere in Congress, for now.  But neither are drunk surgeons – apparently.

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So, where is the faith in the medical industry?  Apparently it’s right in the pockets of those drunk physicians and policymakers.

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